Things You May Wonder about the Samurai

Are there still samurais in Japan?
Not really. Although more than 5% of Japanese population can trace their lineage to the samurai families, they are ordinary citizens with ordinary jobs who don’t carry a sword and who don’t know how to use a sword. They also never brag about having the samurai blood because in today’s society it’s been considered a bit irrelevant. In 1870s the han system (the feudal clan system) was abolished, and the ken (the local government system) was installed. The annual salary of the samurai (3 tons of rice) were suspended, their land was confiscated and they were prohibited from carrying arms and armors. Therefore, the samurais lost their jobs and tried to find new jobs. Some become office workers, bankers, military or police officers

How can you become a Samurai?
In the Edo era, samurai’s life was ruled by the shogunate, therefore the only way to become a samurai was to be born in the samurai family, adopted by a samurai family with a permission of authorities or get married with a samurai.
However, in the warring states period, some talented peasants eventually became samurais. After Toyotomi Hideyoshi banned the peasants from carrying swords in 1590s, it was almost impossible for someone to become a samurai.

How did the samurai armies fight?
The samurai armies did not have one big group. The army consisted of multiple sonae (regimen) consisting of 300~800 warriors. Within each sonae there were several “kumi,” a group consisted of about 20~30 men. The whole army was led by So-Daisho (daimyo), the sonaes were led by samurai taisho, the ashigaru (foot soldiers) were led by ashigaru taisho, kumis were led by kumi gashira. Each sonae had ashigaru archers and arquebusiers on the front line followed by ashigaru spearmen, followed by low ranking samurai and followed by mounted high ranking samurai.
The war used to start by ashigarus shooting arrows followed by the pikemen ashigarus slowly advancing towards the enemy. The samurai then used to attack the rival forces and their actions used to determine the result of the war. The daimyo led the war from all the way back giving the commands to the regiments communicated by the men called gunkan.

Were there female samurais?
Yes! If you were female born in the Samurai family, with no male heir or your relatives had no ability to be a samurai, then you needed to rule the family and serve for your masters. Additionally when a samurai died in the batte field his wife must have protected the household which required strength and training. It so said, about 5% of warrior were female in the warring age. There are also many famous female samurais such as Tomoe Gozen who fought in the Genpei War (1180~85). The legend goes that she was so strong that she could battle against 1000 men alone. Most Japanese are familiar with the white-skinned brave fighter Tomoe Gozen.

Why does the samurai mask have a mustache?
If you were born in the samurai family, you became samurai when you were around 13 years old. Once you become samurai, you were sent to the battle field, if you did not have any face cover, the opponents could easily recognize you as an unskilled warrior. To prevent this happening, the samurai wore masks and intimidated their opponents.

What were the weapons of the samurai?
The first samurai were the mounted archers, the bow and arch were very important for the samurai though they were mostly used for hunting in the past 400 years. When a baby samurai was born he was given a small bow and arrow to convay wish for the health and success of the baby boy. The asymmetric (so that the samurai can shoot by kneeling) Japanese bow is known to be the longest in the world.
The katana was the most important tool for the samurai but it was more commonly used during the Edo period since it is not designed for dueling. The rifles were heavily used during the warring states period but mostly by the foot soldiers (ashigaru). Not because it is dishonorable to kill the enemy from the distance, but because it does not require much training unlike the katana. So that job was given to the ashigaru. The cannons were commonly used during the sieges of Osaka Castle and Shimabara.

How did the samurai train?
Once you were born in the Samurai family, you held a wooden sword in your both hands before you have chop sticks and needed to practice sword fighting from the early childhood. When you become 5 years old, you needed to practice sword fighting with other children in the clan taught by sword masters or someone in your family members. The samurai kids were given real wakizashi around the age of 7 and sent to live in a sword master’s house around the age of 9. Samurai boys were sent to the battle field at the early age of 13. Samurai did not practice any of the modern martial arts (karate, judo, etc.). Their practice is most similar to kendo or iado (sword fighting by using bokken).

Why did not the shogun kill the emperor?
Emperor was considered to be the son of a god who can communicate with many gods. If Shogun wanted to change or kill the emperor, he needed to find someone else to become the new emperor. Shogun could not have become an emperor even if he killed emperor. Because, the shogun was not an Emperor but a military leader.

Were the samurai best warriors in the world?
The last war the samurai got involved was fought 420 years ago (The Battle of Sekigahara in 1600) and the last armed conflict took place about 380 years ago (the Shimabara rebellion in 1639). Being a samurai was more about the honor and the principles, not necessarily the fighting ability. The most famous swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, was actually a ronin, a low level samurai. Contrary to the common view, the samurai actually did not usually fight in the front rows, in the front rows there were foot soldiers “ashigaru” (who usually carried the rifles after 1550s). Behind them there was a different level of foot soliders who carried very long spikes. Behind them the cavalry, or the samurai who were mounted swordsmen. Contrary to the common belief, the katana was rarely used in the battles because it gets dents so easily and it cannot kill a samurai with an armor. Most of the time, the samurai threw stones at each other or used spears with spikes to pull the enemy from their horses. When the enemy lost the balance, then the samurai took out their dagger (tanto) or wakizashi to stab from the points that are not covered by the metal armors (belly, the corners of the torso, etc.).

Why did the samurai commit “seppuku” (harakiri)?
Although the word harakiri is in Japanese, the Japanese word for ritual suicide is seppuku. The samurai cut their belly off because they believed the spirit rested in the belly. Seppuku is done if a samurai is disgraced, heavily wounded or shamefully defeated. Since it is very painful, the samurai cannot cut the belly all the way; a few moments later another samurai (kaishakunin) who is standing behind finishes the job. There are two kinds of seppuku: the one where the samurai voluntarily commits the act and the one where he is charged with the seppuku (e.g. the case of 47 samurai). In the latter case, the samurai wears a white kimono, writes his death poem, gets his last meal where the last plate has a blade without a handle. After half way through, the kaishakunin chops the head but only 60% to make sure the samurai’s head does not roll on the floor (not honorable) or fly away and hit someone. At the end, it looks like the samurai is holding his head in his hands.

How did the Samurai fight with heavy helmets?
Samurai leaders or feudal lords wore decorative helmets that can weigh up to 10kg. These men stayed at the intrenchment, and gave commands. So that their men needed to recognize the leader from the distance. This was especially important in the battles where many rifles with heavy smoke were used. The actual warriors wore simple and lighter helmets.

Harakiri and Suppuku

What is Harakiri (Seppuku)?
It can be considered as honorable death or ritualistic way of ending the life of a samurai. Only samurai can perform harakiri, commoners cannot (They can but no-one would care). The custom dates back to the 12th century as a means for the upper and samurai classes exclusively to atone for crimes, regain lost honour, or avoid disgraceful capture. When executed correctly it was considered to be the noblest way for a samurai to die, and from eyewitness accounts of such ritualistic suicide, probably the most painful.

How is it done?
Seppuku in its most common and recognizable form became a highly ritualized spectacle of noble and artistic suicide in the 1700s. The condemned man wore a ceremonial white death kimono and was permitted a final meal. The execution blade, which could range in size from a long sword to a ceremonial knife, was then served in the last plate, and he would be expected to write a death poem before stabbing himself in the abdomen and cutting first from left to the right and then upwards. Upon completing the cut, his second (kaishakunin) would step forward to issue the killing blow to the condemned man’s exposed neck. However if honour was to be preserved in the act, it was expected that this cut would not severe the neck completely, but allow just enough flesh attached for the head to fall naturally forward into the executed man’s arms. In this way, not only the viewers clothes are not stained with the blood but also the head drops among the two hands of the samurai as if he is holding his head. Women who performed seppuku–often the wives of samurai wishing to avoid capture–would tie their legs together before cutting to preserve a modest posture in death. Variations of the ritual exist without seconds, in which case the condemned man would be expected to strike the final blow to his own throat or heart.

Are Seppuku and Harakiri the same?
Seppuku and harakiri are in essence the same thing. Both refer to the same form of self-execution via disembowelment, and both ostensibly mean “[to] cut the stomach.” The difference between the two words is entirely etymological. Seppuku derives from an on-yomi or Chinese reading of the kanji characters 切腹, while harakiri is a kun-yomi, or native Japanese reading of the same characters in reverse. Due to the historico-political association of Chinese characters with early Japanese aristocratic and governmental literature, the term “seppuku” is almost always used in a written context, while “harakiri” is its verbal equivalent.
There are 2 kinds of Harakiri
Seppuku could be either voluntary or obligatory.
Voluntary seppuku was often committed to restore honour for a misdeed or a failure, or else to avoid capture by an invading army. Obligatory seppuku could be requested by the victor of a conflict as a term of surrender and subsequent peace. In such cases, the leader(s) of the losing side were compelled to commit seppuku, thus removing all further political and military opposition to the victor.
Obligatory seppuku was also used as a means of capital punishment for disgraced samurai who had committed acts of treason or violent crimes. Those who resisted such punishment were restrained while it was acted upon them by another. In the case of the “47 samurai” the seppuku was obligatory handed by the shogunate. During the obligatory seppuku, the blade without the “handle” wrapped with a fabric is given to the samurai to make sure he does not fight back.

The last harakiri in Japan
Yukio Mishima is one of the most interesting characters who ever lived in Japan. He was a famous author who worked as an actor and model. After studying martial arts and kendo, he founded his own private militia (tatenokai) consisting of martial arts students with the focus on the far right ideology and the importance of the emperor of Japan. In 1970 he and his four men from tatenokai trespassed into a Japan Self defense Forces outpost in Tokyo. Mishima encouraged the troops at the base to rise up to reinstate to imperial constitution. This was an obvious attempt for a coup in Japan. But the soldiers did not take him seriously and he ended his life by seppuku on Nov. 25, 1970. Mishima’s seppuku is especially noteworthy because of the failure of his second to correctly deliver the killing blow, resulting in an agonizing series of hacks at Mishima’s neck until his head was finally fully removed.

Why did they cut the belly?
In ancient Asia many believed that the spirit rested inside the belly, slitting the belly let the spirit go free. Also one has to be very brave and mentally strong to be able to perform such kind of act which can only be carried by a true samurai. Although it is reported that in some occasions the samurai lost themselves and collapsed before the ritual and were forcefully beheaded.
Why did the samurai commit seppuku?
Seppuku began on the battlefield as a means for routed samurai to avoid capture, torture, and dishonour. As it evolved, it became a way for disgraced samurai to regain honour by their own hands, as opposed to being executed by another. Seppuku was thus an act that required some form of permission by a figure of authority. Although in the Sengoku period some samurais committed seppuku after their lord died, this practice was banned during the Edo period.

Who did harakiri?
The earliest record of seppuku was that committed by Minamoto no Yorimasa in 1180. Without any accompanying ritual or codified way of performing the act, early seppuku was likely a painful and drawn out process. Some historically notable acts of seppuku include that of Oda Nobunaga, who engaged in ritual suicide to avoid capture when surrounded at Honno-ji temple in 1582; philosopher and tea master Sen-no-Rikyu who was ordered to commit seppuku in 1591 by his lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi over differences of political opinion; Torii Mototada who in 1600 bravely and held his garrison of 300 samurai at Fushimi Castle against the overwhelming siege by the forces of Toyotomi Hideyori; Saigo Takamori who committed seppuku in 1877 after he got wounded during the Satsuma rebellion and and Yukio Mishima who committed seppuku in 1970 after a failed coup d’état.

Famous Samurais of Japan

Oda Nobunaga (1534~1582) , The Uniter of Japan I

After the Onin war (1467 ~1477) the shogun system collapsed and all the daimyos declared their independence. Japan had been in total chaos and no daimyo could establish any significant superiority over others.
The hopeless situation would one day be ended by the Demon King Nobunaga who was born in Nagoya Castle in 1534.
He was brave but unpredictable and sometimes acting bizarre. He was so disrespectful during his father’s funeral so that one of his retainers committed seppuku to protest him.
To take over the leadership the Oda clan, he first killed his uncle and younger brother.
Then he attacked an army of 25,000 men from the Imagawa clan with only 3000 men. He first intimidated them by using dummy soldiers in the dark and then ambushed them in a narrow gorge.
In 1568 The Ashikaga Shogun invited Nobunaga to Kyoto in order to protect him from other daimyos. Nabunaga helped him and announced him as the new shogun but it was an act. Nobunaga wanted to be the shogun himself so he restricted the powers of the Ashikaga shogun. Historians call this moment the end of the Muromachi (Ashikaga) period and the beginning of the period of Azuchi-Momoyama.
Even though he won many battles, his brother was killed by the warrior monks. Nobunaga also lost against the Ikko Ikki warrior monks a few times in his life. But in 1571 he burned one of the biggest temples in Japan slaughtered thousands of monks in Mount Hiei, north of Kyoto city. He repeated the same thing in 1574, he burned the Nagashima settlements of Ikko Ikki, slaughtering about 20,000 people.
In 1575, Oda Nobunaga’s forces crushed the Takeda clan’s army (famous for its cavalry) by using arquebuses Nobunaga acquired from Westerners. About 10,000 Takeda forces were killed near the Nagashino Castle. Although the leader of the Takeda clan survived, Nobunaga got all of their territories in 1582.
Nobunaga is known as the person who introduced and promoted Christianity in Japan. Some historians also claim that he converted to Christianity.
In 1578 , Oda Nobunaga built the Azuchi Castle, the biggest and perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing castle back then. It was on top of a hill overseeing the Eastern and Western Japan.
The only little problem in Central Japan was the ninja clans in the Iga region. They defeated Nobunaga’s son in 1579 and they were completely independent. 2 years later, Nobunaga surrounded the region with 44 thousand-strong army and slaughtered thousands of ninja’s in the region.
Nobunaga also was sometimes disrespectful to men around him. He called Toyotomi Hideyoshi Saru (Monkey) and Akechi Mitsuhide Hage (baldy). He also killed some high ranking war prisoners, whose relatives in turn killed Akechi’s mother.
on June 21, 1582, while resting at the Honnoji Temple with a few dozen servants, Nobunaga realized that thousands of samurai troops waiting outside to kill him. The temple was set on fire and Nobunaga and his close servants committed seppuku. These samurai troops were led by no-one else but Akechi Mitsuhide, one of Nobunaga’s closest generals.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537~1598) The Uniter of Japan II

Hideyoshi’s story was rags to the riches. He was a son of a peasant and he was just a sandal bearer for Oda Nobunaga.
He proved himself to be a smart and good warrior and he became one of Nobunaga’s generals. He avenged his master just 11 days after his death and killed Akechi Mitsuhide.
The chiefs of Oda clan did not want Hideyoshi to be the next leader since he was not from the Oda family. Hideyoshi appointed the infant son of Nobunaga as the new leader on purpose and then destroyed the forces of Katsuie, the chief of the Oda clan. Later he declared himself the head of the Oda clan and started ruling the largest territory in Japan.
In 1583, Hideyoshi built the largest castle in Japan back then: the Osaka castle. The daimyos from each region competed carrying large stones to show there loyalty to Hideyoshi.
In the following years Hideyoshi captured the lands of Shikoku island and Kyushu Island. In 1590, he captured the Odawara castle in Tokyo. Nobunaga’s dream was fulfilled, Japan was finally unified for the first time in 100 years achieved by a son of a peasant. Hideyoshi was never appointed as “shogun” by the emperor because he did not belong to the Minamoto clan.
Hideyoshi prohibited peasants from carrying swords, he confiscated all their swords and melted them into a Buddha statue. He killed 26 Christian missionaries and Japanese converts In Nagasaki to discourage people from converting.
Hideyoshi also asked Sen no Rikyu, the founder of tea ceremony and one of Hideyoshi’s closest friends, to commit seppuku, for the reason we still don’t know today.
He invaded Korea twice (1592, 1597), both incursions were somewhat successful but the Japanese forces never made it into Mainland China and eventually withdrew. The Japanese army attacked China in 1931 by following the same route used by Hideyoshi’s forces.
He could not have a child to take over after him so he declared that his nephew was the heir. But He eventually had a son 5 years before his death. He then killed his nephew and all of his family members including women and kids.
Before he died, he set up the elders council to rule Japan temporarily until his 5 year old son grows up. The elderly council, consisting of 5 generals including Ieyasu, promised to protect his son and obey his rule in the future.

Musashi Miyamoto (1584~1645)

Musashi did not have a master daimyo so he was a ronin. He had more than 60 sword duels, the highest number recorded. He is said to have killed 17 people in his battles. His first battle was when he was 13. He was very strong and a skilled carpenter, architect and an artist. He was about 180 cm while an avg. samurai was 150 cm tall. He is famous for his technique of using two swords in his two hands as usually katana is held with both hands. He wrote a book to train the samurais and the swordsmen. The book is recommended to everyone including martial arts practitioners and business leaders. Miyamoto emphasized that the techniques are less important than the overall goal. The same fighting principles apply to not only one-on-one conflicts but also army battles. The 5 rings represent the five episodes Musashi wrote:
“Do nothing that is of no use” ; “If you wish to control others you must first control yourself”; “from one thing, know ten thousand things”; “It is difficult to understand the universe if you only study one planet” ; “In battle, if you you make your opponent flinch, you have already won.”; “Do not regret what you have done”; “If you do not control the enemy, the enemy will control you” ; “Respect Buddha and the gods without counting on their help”; “The important thing in strategy is not to suppress the enemy’s useful actions but allow his useless actions”; “Perception is strong and sight weak. In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things.”; “Accept everything just the way it is.”; “Never let yourself be saddened by a separation.”

Sanada Yukimura (1567- 1615)

Sanada Yukimura was the most famous samurai of the Sanada clan, being called “A Hero who may appear once in a hundred years“ and “Number one warrior in Japan,“ who is famous for his participation in the Siege of Osaka Castle in 1614 (Winter campaign) and 1615 (Summer Campaign). In the events preceding the Battle of Sekigahara, Yukimura and his father decided to side with Ishida Mitsunari, against Tokugawa Ieyasu, parting ways with Yukimura’s brother Nobuyuki. He participated in the Winter and Summer sieges of Osaka Castle, successfully defending the Castle with only 6000 men against Tokugawa shogunate attacked by 30,000 troops. He was killed near the Yasui Shrine right by the Tennoji temple in Osaka during the Summer siege of Osaka castle. His armor had a symbolic meaning: deer horns (deers are messengers of Gods), red color (red is the purifying color that keep evil spirits away, 6 coins (after death our spirits should pay 6 coins to the devil waiting by the river, the 6 coins on the helmet to remind the readiness for death).

Yoshitsune Minamoto (1159-1189)

Yoshitsune Minamoto faced hardship already as a 1-year-old boy, when his father and two older brothers were murdered in the Heiji Rebellion, while he and his mother managed to flee. He was raised by the monks in Kurama Temple, but did not want to become a priest himself. His famous companion was Benkei (1155-1189) who was sohei ( warrior monk). One night, Benkei was wandering around Kyoto, in his quest to take 1000 swords from samurai warriors. Having managed to take 999 swords, he faced up to the man much smaller than himself and lost- that man was Yoshitsune Minamoto. Out of respect, he became Yoshitsune’s retainer and fought alongside him in his battles against the Taira clan, becoming known in Japanese folklore for his honor, bravery and loyalty. When Yoshitsune was betrayed by his brother Yoritomo and had to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) in the castle of Koromogawa, Benkei died defending him, pierced by a barrage of arrows on the bridge leading towards the castle.

Takeda Shingen (1521- 1573)

Takeda Shingen, Haronubu, was one of the most famous feudal lords of Japan, during a difficult Sengoku (warring states) period. He was known for his rivalry with another famed warrior Uesugi Kenshin. Born into a clan of military governors, he forced his father to step down as a head of the clan and took over. He started expanding into neighboring areas, acquiring a lot of land for his family. In 1551, he became a Buddhist priest and took the name Shingen. Around that time, he started his rivalry with Uesugi Kenshin, with whom he fought five times in the Battles of Kawanakajima. During the only single combat between the two, Kenshin attacked him with a sword, while Shingen fought back with an iron war fan. He also defeated Tokugawa Ieyasu in the Battle of Hamamatsu. There are many accounts of his death, but the most popular is offered in Kurosawa’s movie “Kagemusha“, according to which he died of a single sniper shot wound.

Yoritomo Minamoto (1147-1199)

Yoritomo Minamoto is one of the most important historical figures in Japan, being the first shogun of the Kamakura shogunate, the first shogunate in Japan’s history. As a member of the Minamoto clan, he was destined for a clash with the rival Taira clan. His father and numerous family members were killed by the Taira clan during the Heiji rebellion, and young Yoritomo spent his youth in a Buddhist temple, preparing his revenge. His opportunity came when Prince Mochihito urged him to take up arms and rebel against the Taira. After a series of battles in the Genpei War, he managed to defeat the Taira and set up his base in Kamakura, where he was appointed as shogun and allowed to establish the offices of jito (stewards) and shugo (military governors). The conflict between the Taira and the Minamoto clan is chronicled in “Tale of the Heike“.

Date Masamune (1567- 1636)

Date Masamune was a regional ruler who founded Sendai, the capital of Miyagi Prefecture. He was known as “One-eyed Dragon of Oshu“, having lost his right eye to smallpox he had as a child. In battles, he wore his well-known crescent-moon helmet, which only added to his reputation as a frightening warrior. He fought his first battle at the age of 14, fighting alongside his father in the clash against the rival Soma family. After his father’s death, Masamune became the head of the Date clan. He served shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi who once spared his life in admiration of his bravery in the face of death, but after his death pledged allegiance to Tokugawa Ieyasu who made him the lord of the Sendai Domain and one of the most powerful regional rulers in Japan.

Tomoe Gozen (c.1157-1247)

Tomoe Gozen was onna-bugeisha (female samurai), admired for her swordsmanship, bravery and strength, in addition to her extraordinary beauty. She fought in the Genpei War alongside Minamoto no Yoshinaka, to whom she was either a wife or a mistress. Her moment of glory came in the Battle of Awazu, in which Yoshinaka was killed. Yoshinaka told her that he wanted to die fighting, and urged her to leave the battlefield, because he did not want to die with a woman. There are many accounts of what happened next. According to some, she beheaded one samurai warrior and obliged by escaping the battlefield. Uchida Ieyoshi, a samurai warrior who betrayed Minamoto no Yoritomo, also died at her hands.

Uesugi Kenshin (1530-1578)

Uesugi Kenshin, born in Nagao Kagetora, was the most powerful feudal lord of the Sengoku period, along with Takeda Shingen. He was not only an exceptionally skilled warrior, but also a great administrator and trader. He had a longstanding rivalry with Takeda Shingen over the province of Kanto. Uesugi took the name Kenshin (meaning new sword) and become a Zen-Buddhist, taking a vow of celibacy and becoming vegetarian. He identified with the Buddhist god of war- Bishamonten. By defeating Oda Nobunaga he managed to prevent him from taking over Japan. Kenshin either died of a stomach cancer, or was murdered by a ninja who was hiding under the latrine.

Ishida Mitsunari (1559- 1600)

Ishida Mitsunari was the general of the Western army during the Sekigahara battle. When he was a 13-year-old boy he met Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who appointed him to his staff after enjoying three cups of tea that the boy served him. He went on to become Hideyoshi’s financial manager and administrator, in charge of diplomatic relations with foreigners, among other things. After Hideyoshi died, Tokugawa Ieyasu became one of the five rulers to rule in the name of Hideyoshi’s five-year-old son, and Mitsunari soon became disillusioned with him. He was caught by peasants and executed in Kyoto.

Kato Kiyomasa (1562- 1611)

Kato Kiyomasa, was instrumental in helping Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu to unite Japan. He was the relative of Hideyoshi, and fought alongside him in the Korean campaign, earning the nickname “Devil Kiyomasa“. He was one of the Seven Spears of Shizugatake, Hideyoshi’s bodyguards at the Battle of Shizugatake, and was awarded a lot of land for his service. He built a number of Buddhist shrines and was suppressing Christianity. Having acted as a mediator between Hideyoshi and Ieyasu on many occasions, Kiyomasa fell ill and died after one such meeting.

Sakamoto Ryoma (1836- 1867)

Sakamoto Ryoma was one of the most beloved and admired Japanese heroes, known as a “Japanese Che Guevara“ and celebrated in Japan’s popular culture. He fought against the Tokugawa shogunate, and was known for his visionary work and reforms striving for a more democratic Japan, based on equality. The fact that he managed to forge an alliance between Choshu and Satsuma provinces, proved instrumental in the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate in the Boshin war. He is also known as the “Father of the Imperial Japanese Navy“, since he established the flotilla to fight against the Tokugawa. He was assassinated by a band of assassins in the Omiya Inn at the age of 31 (only 5-minute walk from this museum.. The Kochi Ryoma Airport is named after him and there is a Sakamoto Ryoma Memorial Museum in the same city.

Ito Hirobumi (1841- 1909)

Ito Hirobumi was the first prime minister of Japan who was coming from a samurai family. He drafted the Meiji Constitution, looking up to Western models, owing to his England-based education. He became the first Prime Minister of Japan in 1885, and held the same position three more times, the longest tenure in the history of Japan. Following the Japan-Korea Treaty in 1905, he became the first Japanese Resident-General of Korea, and the President of the Privy Council of Japan, following Korea’s subsequent annexation. He was murdered at the Harbin Railway station, by a Korean nationalist and independence activist.

Hijikata Toshizo (1835- 1869)

Hijikata Toshizo born into a wealthy family in Musashi, went on to become the vice-commander of the Shinsengumi. He was practicing kenjutsu when he met Kondo Isamo, the fourth master of the Tennen Rishin-Ryu martial art, and became his disciple. He fought alongside his teacher at the Battle of Toba-Fushimi and replaced him at the Battle of Yodo-Senryomatsu, because Kondo was wounded. It is said that, after having lost many men in these battles, Toshizo realized that he would no longer have any luck in battles. After Kondo’s death, Hijikata announced the new “Republic of Ezo“. He was killed in the final conflict with the Imperial Forces, while riding on a horseback in combat.

Akechi Mitsuide (1528~1582)

Akechi Mitsuide was a daimyo of the Akechi clan and a general under Oda Nobunaga. He betrayed his master Nobunaga and ordered his troops to kill him. Soon after he was killed by a ronin and Toyotomi Hideyoshi started ruling Japan. Although this kind of betrayal is uncommon some say he was infuriate because Nobunaga insulted him publicly and Nobunaga killed the rulers of a major clan who in turn kidnapped Akechi’s mother and killed her.

Yasuke (1555-1590)

(an artist’s illustration of Yasuke)
Yasuke was a black samurai of African origin (from Ethiopia, Mozambique or South Sudan), described as being a foot taller than other men of his time and “having the strength of ten men“. He was brought to Japan in 1579, by Jesuit missionaries and made a bodyguard to Oda Nobunaga. Upon seeing him for the first time, Nobunaga found it hard to believe that his skin was really black, so he asked him to take his shirt off and scrub his skin to prove that it was not ink. Yasuke’s career as a samurai ended when Nobunaga committed a seppuku (ritual suicide), after being defeated by his former general Mitsuhide.

Kondo Isami (1834- 1868)

Kondo Isami was a swordsman and a renowned commander of the Shinsengumi. He was adopted by Kondo Shusuke, master of the Tennen Rishin-Ryu (Japanese martial art practiced by the Shinsengumi), who was impressed by the bravery of then a 13-year-old boy who saved his family home from a group of thieves. Isami went on to become the fourth master of the Tennen-Rishin-Ryu. He was wounded at the battle of Toba-Fushimi and nearly escaped the Imperial Forces at the Battle of Koshu-Katsunuma. He was finally caught by surprise during training in 1868, arrested by the Imperial Forces and beheaded at the Itabashi execution grounds. His head was put on public display, but it was stolen and buried behind an ancient shrine in Okazaki.

Saigo Takamori (1828- 1877)

Saigo Takamori, known as the last true samurai, resisted modernism and is hailed as a national hero in Japan. When he was a young man, his master died, and he, wanting to follow an old tradition of junshi, attempted to commit a suicide by jumping into a lake, but survived. When Japan was forced to signed the Treaty of Kanagawa and open its ports to American ships under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry, it ended Japan’s 220-year-old policy of seclusion (sakoku) and exposed the weaknesses of military dictatorship (shogunate). This event triggered the Meiji Restoration, with Emperor Meiji attempting to modernize the country and dismantle the old system of rule. When the reforms threatened samurai way of life, forbidding them from carrying their swords in public, ordering them to wear their hair in Western fashion, Saigo resigned from his government positions and established his own school, attracting as many as 20.000 young samurai. From there, he led the Satsuma rebellion against the central government. Details surrounding his death during the rebellion are not completely known, but it is believed that he committed a seppuku, either by himself or assisted by another samurai.

The Ninja Memory

Ninjas were spies,they had to remember all the detailed information they acquired on a mission sometimes for weeks or months. So they developed a few techniques to easily remember things

  • Numbers associated with body parts: Each body part represent a number from 0 to 9 (1 eyes, 2 nose , 3 mouth, 4 throat, 5 elbow, 6 hair, …). This made it easier for ninja to remember any particular number (e.g. 431=throat-mouth-eyes)
  • Scars on the body: This sounds painful but the ninja used to lightly carve the important info on their skin by using sharp objects like shuriken.
  • Hidden paper notes in bamboo sandals: To look normal the ninja often wore sandals made out of bamboo leaves. After writing the notes on tiny pieces of paper they used to roll it tighty and attach it to their sandal as if its a bamboo straw.

Ninjas and Meteorology

The ninja knew that successfully forecasting rain and the wind could give them strategic advantages against the enemy. They studied the weather and this was called “tenmon.” Ninjas believed that

  • If there are dew drops on spider nets, it would be a clear weather
  • If there is a large ring around the moon, it is likely to rain
  • If the mountains seem close, it is likely to rain
  • If the stars are twinkling, the next day will be rainy
  • If it is cloudy but not windy, it is not going to rain (fall season only)
  • Ninjas also often set a fire to ablaze the enemy territory. It is very important to know when there will be a smooth dry wind called the “foehn effect” to accelerate the fire. The ninjas used kites in the morning to predict the dry wind in the afternoon.

Ninja Survival and Plants

  • Water Chestnuts

This fruit has many spikes covering the skin and the samurai used the spikes as maki-bishi (caltrop). The ninja used to carry a handful of makibishi and drop them when they are chased in a narrow path so that the pursuers can step on them and hurt themselves.

  • Bamboo Leaves

These leaves have an antibacterial effect so the ninja used them to preserve their food especially rice. After boiling the rice they wrapped them in these leaves.

  • Red Bean Paste

Since it is difficult to hunt animals in certain seasons and buddhists tend to refrain eating meat, the ninja had to find ways to keep them going. The beans have lots of protein and the ninja boiled them and made dried bean pastes that can be eaten on the go.

Ninja Survival and Animals

  • Cats

The ninja knew that the pupils of cats’ eyes  shrink when there is light and expand when there is no light. They could easily tell the time by looking at the cats’ eyes. This was necessary if they had to hide indoors for a long time and if they needed to know exactly the middle of the day. The pupils of cats’ eyes shrink the most and become like a needle right around the noon.

  • Dogs

Ninjas often faced watch dogs when they were on a mission. To distract them, they used the same kind opposite sex dogs. If they had a time to prepare for the mission, then they repeatedly gave the the dogs treats and got them familiarized with the smell of the ninja.

  • Rabbits

The ninja released rabbits or similar small animals in front of the target building they are trying to sneak in which would confuse and distract the guards.

  • Crows

Ninja used the feather of the crow to attach the arrows of the blowgun (Fukiya-dutsu). The ninja also observed the crows in the river. A swimming crow means it will rain.

  • Blowfish

Ninja often used poison by putting it on the sharp edges of the shuriken (ninja stars). They often extracted the poison from blowfish, commonly found in Japan.

Musashi Miyamoto’s Teachings (1584~1645)

  • Musashi did not have a master daimyo so he was a ronin.
  • He had more than 60 sword duels, the highest number recorded. He is said to have killed 17 people in his battles. His first battle was when he was 13.
  • He was very strong and a skilled carpenter, architect and an artist. He was about 180 cm while an avg. samurai was 150 cm tall.
  • He is famous for his technique of using two swords in his two hands as usually the katana is held with both hands.
  • He wrote a book to train the samurais and the swordsmen. The book is recommended to everyone including martial arts practitioners and business leaders.
  • Miyamoto emphasized that the techniques are less important than the overall goal. The same fighting principles apply to not only one-on-one conflicts but also army battles. The 5 rings represent the five episodes Musashi wrote: The book of earth: martial arts, leadership and the importance of training. The book of water: Swordmanship techniques. The book of fire: the importance of timing. The book of wind: the most common fighting errors. The book of void: strong mindset, mindfulness and zen.
  • In his book, he stated:
  1. “Do nothing that is of no use”
  2. “If you wish to control others you must first control yourself”
  3. “From one thing, know ten thousand things”
  4. “It is difficult to understand the universe if you only study one planet”
  5. “In battle, if you you make your opponent flinch, you have already won.”
  6. “Do not regret what you have done”
  7. “If you do not control the enemy, the enemy will control you”
  8. “Respect Buddha and the gods without counting on their help”
  9. “The important thing in strategy is not to suppress the enemy’s useful actions but allow his useless actions”
  10. “Perception is strong and sight weak. In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things.”
  11. “Accept everything just the way it is.”
  12. “Never let yourself be saddened by a separation.”

The 18 Major Ninja Training Techniques Spiritual training -Seishin teki kyoyo

  • Spiritual training -Seishin teki kyoyo
  1. Know yourself, your needs and desires
  2. Know the nature, environment and the universe
  3. Understand the importance of destiny
  4. Be in harmony with the nature and society (harmony)
  5. Understand others and have empathy (heart)
  6. See and observe your environment (eye)
  7. Love yourself and others (love)
  • Tai Jutsu – Combat Training. Fighting with no weapons
  • Daken-taijutsu – Punching, kicking, blocking
  • Jutai-jatsu – Close fighting, grappling, submission holds and escape holds
  • Taihen-jutsu – Silent movement, leaping, falling, rolling and tumbling
  • Kenjutsu – Swordmanship
  • Bojutsu- Staff fighting (Using Bo (Long stick))
  • Shurikenjutsu- Throwing blades- Throwing shuriken stars
  • Yarijutsu – Spear fighting. The ninja trained with the spears commonly used by the samurai as follow:
  1. Te-yari – A short spear
  2. Naga-yari – A long spear
  3. Tetsu-yari – A metal spear
  4. Sanbon-yari – A three bladed spear
  5. Kama-yari – A spear with an additional half moon blade
  • Naginatajutsu (Spear with a katana ending/Polearm)
  • Kusarigamajutsu – Chain and sickle weapon
  • Kayakujutsu – Fire and explosives
  • Hensojutsu – Disguise Techniques . The ninja were trained to be able to impersonated at least 7 different characters as a monk, a samurai, a merchant, a craftsmen, a farmer, a performer and an ordinary peasant. The ninja used to carry at least 2 costumes with them.
  • Shinobi-iri – Sneaking in and stealth techniques
  • Nyukyo no-jutsu – The correct timing
  • Monomi no-jutsu – Locating the weakest point
  • Nyudaki no-jutsu – Locating the weakest staff
  • Yogi Gakure – Using an object for distraction
  • Joei-on jutsu – The way of concealing the sounds
  • Bajutsu – Horsemanship
  • Sui-ren – Water skills
  • Bo-ryaku – Strategy. The ninja were trained to think strategically. Not only defeating one enemy but also how to overcome a group and sometimes how to defeat the enemy without fighting (acting politically etc.).
  • Choho – Espionage. The ninja studied the techniques of how to gain trust and how not to look or act suspicious.
  • Inton-jutsu – Escape techniques
  • Ten-mon – Meteorology
  • Chi-mon – Geography
  • Seizon-jutsu – Survival skills. Surving in the wild, hunting and gathering skills, tracking skills.

The Stealth Techniques of the Ninja

  • Running: The ninja used to run leaning front. Starting with the right foot and right hand. The samurai were also trained to run the same way believing that the weight at the belly (sword etc.) naturally helped them get faster and also forced them to run faster and faster in order to keep their balance. The Ninja used to train up in the hills to get larger lungs and some ninja could run 200km a day.
  • Breathing: The ninja had to quietly wait hours and hours on the rooftop or a basement of a house they are trying to sneak in. They had to learn to hold their breath for a longer period of time and breath so silently. For silent breathing practice they used to put a feather on the tip of their nose and make sure it doesn’t fall off when they are breathing their mouth shot. The ninja also learned how to control their breathe by holding it first short durations (e.g. 15 seconds) and then gradually increasing that duration to 2-3 minutes).
  • The Ninja walk (shinobi aruki):
  1. Ninjas had to be very quiet when walking and often trained by walking on the sand and gravel to test their silent and trace-less walking skills. They had 3 main principles when walking
  2. Lower your body to the ground by bending your knees, if you stand tall you are more likely to be spotted.
  3. Start walking by simultaneously moving your right foot and right arm followed by the left foot and left arm.
  4. Step on the floor by the outer edges (sides) of your feet. This reduces the sound. Some major stealth walking techniques require you to step on your tiptoe first or your heel first but the ninja used to step on by the outer sides of their feet first.
  • The ninja always followed basic stealth techniques such as
  1. Distract the enemy (creating sounds in the opposite direction, modern day phone call)
  2. Reduce the light and visibility for the enemy (act at night without the moonlight, turn the lights off)
  3. Observe and take advantage of the weak points of the enemy (pretend seeking help)
  4. Conceal the sounds you are making (use animal companions or animal sounds)
  5. Conceal your traces (walk on a piece of cloth)